My husband and I were combing the Morganton Herald (NC), searching for the whereabouts of his grandfather in 1900, when I did a double-take. I grew up with segregated schools and facilities, and knew that many southerners fought the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But I was unprepared to see explicit racism in print.
During April, 1900–when my husband’s grandfather would have been of voting age–the front page of every issue contained commentary in support of North Carolina’s suffrage amendment, soon to be voted on. According to the amendment, “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language,” and pay a poll tax.
The amendment made no mention of race, but its purpose was clearly stated by the newspaper: “The white man has assisted and encouraged [the negro] to get out of his place by conferring upon him the right of suffrage, and now it is our duty to show him his proper place by disfranchising him.” “We inscribe thereon white supremacy and its perpetuation.” “[The] rights of every Anglo-Saxon is safely guarded in the amendment.”
Of course many white people couldn’t read or write. No worry. The amendment stipulated that anyone entitled to vote on or before January 1, 1867, could still vote. They and their descendants. (The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting black men the right to vote had been passed in 1868.)
Proponents incited fear among whites. The power granted by the vote had emboldened black men, putting white women in danger, threatening white rights. Pass the amendment, and the negro would know his place. Reason and peace would prevail. The amendment passed and stayed in effect until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It’s not surprising that today white men and women waving Confederate flags speak of protecting “white civil rights.” Given our history we can also understand southern legislators’ motivation for passing voting laws that require specific forms of ID and limit opportunities to cast a ballot. Today our law makers mask their purpose, claiming cost efficiency and protection from voter fraud, when in fact the intent is to disenfranchise African Americans. Many white voters are manipulated into believing these changes will restore America’s integrity.
History is indeed repeating itself.